Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal | Publisher: Ubisoft | Played On: Xbox 360 [Also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, Windows] | Release Date: October 29 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U) | ESRB: Mature [Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence]

Even before consumers immersed themselves in the sea combat of Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft was planning to expand that promising mode of play into the central feature of a new installment. That became this year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, a seafaring adventure that takes you to the most fitting of settings: the Caribbean islands of the 18th century. Offering sea and land exploration in equal measure is a bold change, but in the grand scheme of an annualized series, it’s a very reasonable, even required approach.

Ubisoft’s idea of a pirate’s life is one stripped of Disney novelty: no parrots, no walks on planks, and pirate slang is kept to a minimum. Naturally, ACIV takes creative liberties with familiar names like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, now framed around the never-ending conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. At the center of it all is young Edward Kenway, the grandfather of protagonist, Connor Kenway.  Compared to other assassins in the series, Edward’s acceptance of the creed is met with considerably more apprehension and internal conflict, especially given his predisposition to the pirate lifestyle.

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With the story of Desmond Miles firmly closed, one of the big questions concerned a new present day protagonist. Well, it’s you, as a new hire of Abstergo Entertainment, the same Abstergo division responsible for the historical simulation in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. This section is played in first-person, in the mildly twisted setting of a game company, where Abstergo Entertainment could be a fictionalized version of Ubisoft Montreal. It’s a jarring change from Desmond’s story that still needs further exploration. What we have so far feels more like a prologue to a new story arc, and maybe it will be fleshed out in the next Assassin’s Creed.

Of the many words you can use to describe ACIV, at the top would be ‘cohesion’. The near complete absence of loading screens when transitioning from land to ship to another ship does a lot to keep you engaged. This inclusiveness extends to the Caribbean map, containing Havana, Nassau, and Kingston. Cohesion begets fluidity, a marked contrast over the limited entry and exit points of the New England areas of ACIII.

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Then there’s the sea exploration, which is just as involving for completionists as any large Assassin’s Creed city. You’re never too far away from picking up floating loot or a stranded sailor, ships to raid, or a whale to harpoon. Similar to the Notoriety system in previous games, conflict is readily available especially if you’ve built a reputation as a hostile pirate. Every land mass, no matter how small, has its prizes including animals to hunt for crafting resources.

When controlling your ship, the Jackdaw, you might find that it has the same basic maneuvers as space combat vessels, especially when you reduce speed to make tighter turns. It doesn’t take long to appreciate its weightiness, whether you’re cruising along calm waters or managing through a swelling rogue wave in an angry sea. If you have any skill at multitasking, managing the course of the Jackdaw while aiming cannons is always gratifying. You may not win every conflict, but you have offensive options on all sides.

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Loot and money are the ingredients to upgrade the Jackdaw and improving the ship is akin to improving Edward’s own gear. If anything rewards and motivates your time commitment to maxing out your ship’s stats, it’s the four menacing Legendary ships that reside on the four corners of the map.

For fans of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Kenway’s Fleet is an inventive reimagining of the assassin management system, only instead of sending out agents, you send out ships to various parts of the Eastern seaboard for trade opportunities. Judgment calls are made based on the calculated success rate, especially when the hostility level of a given region changes over time.

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The abundance of jungles in this part of the New World provide even more avenues for discovery. These areas are fitting hideaways for structures left by the mythic First Civilization. Tied to these buildings are the Mayan ruins, which provide some mildly challenging puzzles. At least they’re more brain-teasing than the simplistic hacking puzzles in the game’s modern day interludes.

For all the criticisms ACIII received for its flawed chase sequences, ACIV shows Ubisoft’s confidence in keeping this recurring feature of the series. These new pursuit sequences are slightly less ambitious but are more satisfying, especially since they’re actually beatable after no more than a handful of attempts. The game also retains ACIII‘s single-trigger parkour mobility, where low walls, roofs, and other grip points are conveniently sticky. As always, be mindful that this stickiness can be your friend and enemy in an urban foot chase.

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Always complementary to the chases are the tailing missions. In ACIV, we see a clear shift from crowd camouflage to simple sneaking through vegetation. We actually preferred this approach, since we didn’t have to rely on crowd AI and enemy surveillance behavior is very forgiving. It should be noted that chases and tailing isn’t just limited to foot pursuits. The Jackdaw is also a participant, even if it’s occasionally unrealistic for a large ship to stay hidden from its prey.

Compared to the wealth of item and weapon options in prior installments, ACIV reflects both a scaling back as well as a showcase of some of the best weapons from the series. The swords and handguns alone are enough to take on a crowd of soldiers, especially when the counter and break defense moves are more responsive than ever. Then there is the highly useful rope dart and the equally effective blowgun that were introduced in ACIII and Liberation respectively. And once again, the smoke bomb feels like an exploit, especially when you can use it to kill at least three blinded foes after a single lob.

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Playing on the PlayStation 4 we’re looking at a very rare kind of cross-generational game: it didn’t look like a mere next-gen port with better resolution. It’s easy to marvel at vegetation animation and the detail of the ocean surface, but there’s also subtle but equally impressive touches like the sheets of water sliding off the Jackdaw’s deck. For all that Ubisoft managed to pull off with the PlayStation 4, they should get equal credit for delivering a comparably similar experience on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It’s a visually rougher playthrough on current gen consoles, but it’s never severe enough to impact the overall enjoyment. (Note that we did not have the opportunity to play it on Xbox One.)

Assassin’s Creed multiplayer has come a long way since its humble start in Brotherhood and it’s improved with each iteration.  Even though the adversarial modes are still subject to foe-versus-friend-versus-foe daisy chain kills, the new maps and the array of abilities should hold fans’ interest for months. We expect even better longevity out of the co-op modes against the AI. Wolfpack, in particular, returns with an addicting variety of objectives, from coordinated group kills to protecting chests from thieves.

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The freshness of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag puts any concerns of sequel fatigue to rest. It pulls off its seafaring gameplay so adeptly that we wouldn’t mind seeing this again in a sequel. While impressive on the current gen consoles, it’s even more remarkable on the PlayStation 4, making it one of the best launch games of all time, alongside the likes of Soul Calibur and Halo: Combat Evolved. While we’re unsure of where the modern day story is headed, experiencing a well-executed snapshot of the golden age of piracy sets expectations of the next Assassin’s Creed uncomfortably high.

+ Most cohesive and fluid Assassin’s Creed experience to date

+ Exquisite PlayStation 4 production values

+ Engrossing pirate ship exploration and combat

- Nebulous modern day story

9 / 10

 

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